Listening is optional | Inquirer Opinion
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Listening is optional

/ 09:57 PM March 30, 2012

Last March 29, when BusinessWorld put out its SWS-based report, “Filipinos anxious over outcome of Corona trial,” I posted it on Facebook with the comment:

“An SWS report is not addressed to anyone in particular, but is for the information of everyone in general.  SWS is neutral regarding the trial, and has no recommendations for anyone’s action regarding it. Awareness of public opinion is recommended; heeding it is optional. What is obligatory is to respect the people’s right of freedom of expression.”

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Restrict the jury, not the citizens. In the United States’ system of trial by jury, there is basis for shielding jurors from exposure to media publicity, and for protecting them from the ire of crowds of demonstrators.

But there is no basis to stop ordinary people from expressing opinions about a trial, or stop opinion polls from being conducted about a trial, or stop the media from publishing such opinion polls. A court may shut the ears of the jurors, but it may not shut the mouths of the citizens.

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Freedom of speech includes freedom to poll. The freedom of speech includes the freedom to listen. One’s freedom of speech is meaningless if those one wishes to speak to, and who voluntarily wish to listen, are coercively restrained from doing so, or restrained from recording and disseminating what they heard to yet other people.

Like news reporters, opinion pollsters are listeners by occupation. One difference is that reporters may identify their interviewees, but pollsters are not allowed to do so, since the anonymity of survey respondents is specifically required by codes of professional ethics (of the World Association for Public Opinion Research, for example).

A news reporter interviews only a few people, mostly VIPs. For a scientific opinion poll, the global-standard sample size is 1,000 respondents, randomly drawn nationwide. It is the sample size for all countries, large or small, in Eurobarometer; it is specified for the 48-country International Social Survey Programme, the 60-country World Values Survey, and the 150-country Gallup World Poll. SWS is the Philippine member of ISSP and WVS, and the Philippine field provider for Gallup.

Freedom to dialogue. Freedom of expression is the right of both interviewees and interviewers.  Listeners may freely ask questions of their choice; different listeners may have different questions to ask.  Interviewees may freely decide what answers to give, and what questions to answer.

Freedom of speech is also meaningless if there are restrictions as to when speakers may speak and when listeners may listen. Regardless of the stage of the current impeachment trial, it is not unfair to include questions about it in a regularly scheduled opinion poll. Indeed, how could SWS defend exclusion of the impeachment trial from the agenda of its First Quarter 2012 survey?

SWS uses its regular quarterly surveys to poll opinions on all important current issues, and does not delay or advance its schedule to suit any one issue. In 2011, for instance, the surveys were done on March 4-7, June 3-6, Sept. 4-7, and Dec. 3-7. This year, the first survey was fielded on March 10-13.

The next quarterly round of 2012 will certainly include the impeachment trial, whether or not the trial has been concluded. Perhaps it will repeat some questions, discard some, and introduce new ones. Then those who appreciate scientific opinion polls shall see what happens. Opinions can stay the same, or can change.

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In 1991, the Senate was unfazed by the opinion polls. Before the expiry of the term of the US military bases (on Sept. 16, 1991), the SWS surveys had consistently showed public support for retaining them.

As late as July 1991, an SWS national survey showed 46 percent amenable to the bases even without any change in payments by the United States (who objected to the term “rentals”). Twenty-eight percent favored retaining them if the United States offered a better deal.  Only 20 percent were adamant about removing them by September 1991, if not earlier.

On Aug. 27, 1991, the executive branch signed a treaty of friendship, cooperation and security with the United States, and President Cory Aquino campaigned for its ratification by the Senate. But this was “the Senate that said No”—the book by Jovito Salonga, who was ousted from the Senate presidency by the end of the year. In November 1991, 56 percent of Filipinos wanted the administration to reject the Senate’s decision; in February 1992, the rejection rate was still 55 percent.

But by September 1992 public opinion had changed, to 82 percent supporting, and only 17 percent rejecting, the Senate’s decision. The SWS polls also showed that the people did not support the bases out of need for military security. When the economy improved, despite doomsday predictions of the bases-partisans, they appreciated the Senate’s decision. (See my column, “The vindication of the Senate,” Manila Chronicle, Nov. 7, 1992.)

Will the Senate of 2012 be vindicated later on, if the impeachment trial goes against current public opinion?  I make no prediction.

Those who feel bothered by opinion polls should simply ignore them, or insulate themselves from them.  Listening to the people is not obligatory.

Demanding a stoppage of surveys violates the freedom of expression of the people, who are all potential survey respondents, as well as of opinion pollsters. What is obligatory is protecting the people’s right to speak.

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Contact SWS: www.sws.org.ph or [email protected]

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TAGS: featured column, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, opinion, opinion polls
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